God is a very powerful idea. It's probably the most successful idea, too, as it's about as old as humanity. This article is a kind of FAQ on God and theistic belief: What is God? Is it real? Why does it exist? (Every statement in this article reflects the author's own opinion and is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by God. Although, I've heard, he considered tweeting about it...)
So, now that we have that out of the way: What is God?
What is god?
Traditionally, philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas said, God is the first, timeless, absolutely simple, and sovereign, completely transcendent being. So, God according to this definition has and will always exist, is sovereign and completely independent of all we know.
This definition underlines the fascination of humans with the transcendent: What lies beyond the horizon? We have always tried to find out. By exploring the limits of the earth, the air, the moon, the solar system, the galaxy, the whole universe. God has, especially in this view, been associated with the unknown, the fringes of our understanding. Staring into the night sky has always stirred up thoughts of infinity, timelessness, of a world where we and our problems are insignificant.
Anselm of Canterbury defined God as "that than which nothing greater can be thought", which is also reminiscent of thoughts provoked by looking at the night sky.
Priority is the basis for Thomas Aquinas' proof of the existence of God: He made three very similar arguments all involving the cause-and-effect relationship of things. Basically, he argued that every effect has a cause and nothing can cause itself while there cannot be an infinite chain of causation. Thus follows the existence of something that caused everything and is itself not caused by anything else. In this proof, the timelessness and sheer size of the universe reverberates, with every event ever to have happened being caused by the ultimate mover: God.
Today, there are much more views of God than there are Gods. So the question is, can we consolidate all of these?
It seems most believers nowadays agree on a more personal definition of God, who is thought to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. Not judging, whether God is completely transcendent. This slow transition of the definition of God from the greatest thing to be thought to the almighty father, is probably closely associated with the rise of scientific thought and the unveiling of the mysteries that lie beyond our horizon. People turned to idealistic qualities and the greatest human need: unconditional love.
This benevolence of God sparked another proof of God's existence, once again by Thomas Aquinas: Goodness, the quality of being good, he argued, is always relative in degree to a maximum, and this maximum of goodness he identifies as God.
(As you've probably noticed, both definitions of God presented here are accompanied by a proof by Thomas Aquinas. This, of course, emphasizes that these definitions are, in a way, timeless and merely subject to general popularity.)
However, not all Gods have been identified as good per se and in fact, the following question arises: If God is completely good and all-powerful and knows everything, how can God let happen all the suffering in the world? If God is really good, shouldn't she/he/it do everything in their power to prevent suffering? This question is the question of theodicy.
Since suffering can hardly be denied, many people have concluded that one attribute of God must be compromised: Maybe God is indeed good but doesn't know about all the suffering (perhaps, because the universe is so huge), or perhaps God is good and knows about all the suffering, but isn't powerful enough to do anything about it, or God knows about the suffering and even has the power to stop it, but doesn't want to do anything about it and is thus in fact not benevolent. In the face of the Holocaust many people arrived at the conclusion that God cannot exist or at least cannot be good, since if he existed then he would have had to let happen all the terrible crimes committed during that time.
There is, however, another possible explanation: Alvin Plantinga argued that God has created humans as free creatures and one couldn't convincingly call them free if God could prevent them from doing evil things. If the world is better with free creatures in it than with only unfree creatures that are prevented from doing evil things, then we can still consider God to be good.
Is god real?
A hotly debated question between atheists and believers is of course the question, whether God actually exists or is just a figment of imagination.
In order to find out whether God exists, we must define it first. God's attributes vary greatly, however, and are subject to a lot of inner and inter-religious debates. From the most agreed-upon attributes (omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence) it is not clear whether God is actually a part of this world or this physical universe or perhaps resides outside it. He might even consist of everything in it. So, these are the three crucial cases to distinguish in answering the question of God's existence.
Immanence means that God is a part of this physical reality. If he does reside inside this physical reality, that would mean we cannot find proof of his existence, because as he is omnipotent he is able to defeat physics and logic. We cannot, however, prove or disprove that something illogical exists, unless we can observe it. Miracles have, of course, long been seen as signs by God, but so far no supposed miracle has ever proven to be unexplainable and/or real. So, if God is part of this reality, he's doing a god job of hiding out.
Transcendence means that God is not part of this physical reality. If God resides outside this physical reality, we cannot by definition prove his existence via scientific thought or experiment. This is very sad, but also part of the appeal of this concept of God.
Pantheism is a kind of compromise where there is nothing outside of this reality and God is also not just some "super hero"-like entity wandering around in it, but rather consists of everything in this reality. If God consists of everything in this reality, we can probably identify God with the laws of nature. God would then just be a different name for those laws. If disregardd the random events happening on the quantum level, this would above all render most religions pointless, because God wouldn't have a will or an agenda, but would just be a possibly cruel law. Again, that can still be true, but there is no way to prove it.
Why does the concept exist?
So, as we cannot know if God is real, essentially God is prior to existence. This doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It means its existence doesn't matter to the concept.
However, why is it such a popular concept and why do so many people choose to believe in the existence of God?
This has to do with our shortcomings and frustrations. There are things that we cannot influence, that are out of our hands, just as there are things that we do not know and there are times when we don't do the right thing. This makes us sad and hopeless, and at this point the thought that there might exist someone that has everything in their hands, knows everything and always does the right thing, like a parent, can be very comforting. It can reassure us and strengthen our confidence.
Some people believe that the healthiest or the only right way to go through life is with faith in God. However, while spirituality can be a powerful coping mechanism, it is generally not true that believers are healthier or achieve higher goals.
Humanity is divine
A very different, very differentiated view on God was brought forward by Ludwig Feuerbach. He essentially asked, "What makes God divine?", and analysed many definitions and attributes of God(s), like timelessness, benevolence, justice, omniscience, omnipotence, beauty, etc.
For each believer, their God cannot be God without the attributed qualities. So, in order for God to be divine, he needs these attributes. Doesn't that make these attributes divine in themselves? While God's definition depends on them, their definitions do not depend on them being attributed God: God wouldn't be God if he wasn't benevolent, for example, but benevolence is still desirable without God being benevolent. Feuerbach concludes that the qualities we attribute to God are, in fact, divine, are all that we should call God.
And incidentally, all of these qualities are in themselves human virtues: We crave timelessness and the power to change the things we abhor, we strive to be good, we try to be just and we hope to be wise. In fact, this turns out not to be a coincidence, as he goes on to explain how our relationship and view of God changed throughout history:
As long as man is a mere natural being, his God is a mere natural deity. Mere man lives in houses, he encloses his gods in temples. A temple expresses the value which man attaches to beautiful buildings. Temples in honour of religion are in truth temples in honour of architecture. With man’s progress to culture from a state of primitive savagery, with the distinction between what is proper and what is improper for man, there also arises the distinction between what is proper and what is improper for God. God expresses man’s notion of majesty, highest dignity, religious sentiment, and highest feeling of propriety. Only at a later stage did the culturally more advanced artists of Greece embody in their statues of gods the concepts of dignity, spiritual grandeur, rest without movement, and serenity. [...] The Homeric gods eat and drink – this means that eating and drinking are divine pleasures. Physical strength is a quality of the Homeric gods – Zeus is the strongest of all gods. Why? Because physical strength in itself was something glorious and divine to the Greeks. The highest virtue to ancient Germans was the virtue of the warrior; that is why their highest god was the god of war – Odin; that is why war to them was “the primeval or the oldest law.” The first, true divine being is not the quality of divinity, but the divinity or the deity of quality. In other words, that which theology and philosophy have so far regarded as God, as the absolute and essential, is not God; but that which they did not regard as God, is precisely God – quality, determination, and reality par excellence.
This is the purest confession of love for humanity. Our highest virtues, our highest values are what we praise in our worship of God. And who created these virtues, and values? Aren't we as humans divine since we have developed these virtues?
Let me close, with another quote by Feuerbach:
How could you perceive the divine through feeling if feeling itself were not divine? The divine can be known only through that which is itself divine – “God can be known only through himself.”
(Post image: "The creation of Adam" photographed by Larry Koester, licensed under CC-by 2.0)